Jungle: ‘When you write a song certain people want to hear … that’s when you start making crap music’

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

As Jungle, Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland — who go by ‘J’ and ‘T’ — produce classic soul and funk with an unmistakably modern feel to it. The duo has also been racking up fans and YouTube hits alike with a series of strikingly idiosyncratic, dance-oriented music videos. Jungle recently launched its self-titled debut album with a release party in their hometown of London.

T: (The launch party) was incredible, it was a really lovely experience. It was actually nerve-wracking because playing to your friends and people you know is a little bit more scary in a way — they know you and so you feel like you’re being slightly more scrutinized, whereas if you’re playing in front of 5,000 people you’ve never met before, you instantly feel a little bit more engaged with them.

Is that part of the reason you began as anonymous?

J: People keep picking up on it as a thing, but we were just in a studio putting stuff out. A lot of artists these days, they have their social-media set up before they even have the music. We were working on the music rather than sorting out, say, the photos for a Myspace profile. The first thing we did was stick stuff up on SoundCloud and let it run. Then we had people asking us for a press shot and we told them, “The only photo we’ve got is a still of the dancer from the music video for ‘Platoon’ — can’t you just use that? Also “J” and “T” — that’s just our nicknames. Then the video for ‘The Heat’ followed that, and there was a lot of confusion over whether that was us, because it was a duo.

We kept the same format for all four videos now: We love the idea of all these portraits of people, and having them on the cover art of the releases, and how it reflects the track — having that multi-dimensional aspect is important to us. The anonymity thing follows from that: We wanted it to be about the music and the visuals, we wanted people to lose themselves in that world rather than lose themselves in what we look like — I don’t want to know about that, I don’t get a kick out of that … music should be about escapism.

T: It’s almost cooler when you don’t have much of an idea about an artist, because it makes what they do more ethereal and untouchable. I remember, when I was younger, opening the NME when Kings of Leon had just released their first record, and thinking, “Who the f-ck is this bunch of hillbillies?” Gun-toting with long hair and ripped T-shirts … and it was like, I don’t care who they are, they just look so cool and their music is amazing. I don’t want to know who their dad is, or what school they went to, it’s irrelevant.

I feel as if music fans used to be willing to “accept” anonymous artists — what changed?

T: Social media. With the Internet everyone takes information for granted, and now people get scared when they can’t find certain information about somebody.

Is there a flipside to that?

T: I think the fact that we have access to so much musical information means that our knowledge has broadened, and you can look at it two ways: The speed of information and the Internet as a negative, or it can be a massive positive if you use it in the right way to inform yourself; there’s no way that 10 years ago I would have gone into a record shop and picked up a random afro-funk record, but on Spotify, if I see it on a playlist, I’ll listen to it and follow the thread of where it’s come from, and of course you pick up more cultural references that way.

The counter-argument is that 10 years ago you would have had to physically go to a record shop or find a certain person who owned the record, and, by doing that, engage yourself in cultures and communities that you might not necessarily have otherwise encountered.

T: Probably, but I guess that’s just the way that we’re learning to connect to different cultures now. Here’s a great example: I studied a lot of minimal classical music when I was younger, like Steve Reich and people like that. Reich had to physically go to Ghana and sit there for three months with an old tape machine and these master drummers, and he would listen to them drum, he would record them drumming and then he would go back to his room and he would sit there painstakingly notating everything and trying to understand, in a Western way, how these African musicians were doing what they did. And I think obviously that experience is going to be more vivid and lucid.

J: You get this thing where today, it’s like ADHD, the speed that we obtain visual content on our devices — swipe, swipe, swipe, swipe — there’s so much content available, it’s not valued. And that’s what T is saying about Reich — if you put that much time and effort into something, you enter a lasting, binding contract with it.

It’s your first time over here in Japan — did you get a chance to check out Tokyo?

T: Yeah we went out last night, got caught in the thunderstorm, which was amazing actually — I wouldn’t want to see it any other way.

J: It was like “Blade Runner.” When we write music, we tend to imagine ourselves in places and locations and scenes, and funnily enough Japan is one of them — “Accelerate,” which is the second track on the record, for us is like a Japanese video game where you’re on a motorbike driving through tunnels at 250 mph, and you smash it into a wall and it’s game over and then you’re ready to go again — it’s that sort of vibrancy and crazy speed, and the Japanese feeling of everything being quite angular, quite manga.

Both culturally and musically, your style is quite hard to pinpoint geographically.

T: That’s because there are so many influences from all over the world in what we do and in our lives, whether it’s Afrobeat or classical music; it’s a massive collage of what we’ve digested culturally over the last 25 years of our lives.

J: It’s probably because we’ve struggled before, making music with “walls.” We’ve been friends for 14 years, it’s something you have to work at, we played music for 10 years before (Jungle) and it hasn’t been honest, and there are even tracks where we just cared too much, or we wanted to make a track that sounds like Gold Panda, but it’s just not honest. It sounds like a rip-off.

T: When you write songs that you think certain people want to hear, or certain kids will get into, that’s when you start making crap music. Fundamentally you’re not being honest to yourself, you’re not letting people into your heart or soul, you’re pushing them away.

J: You have to start with enjoyment, fun, laughter, happiness and then if you start with that then anything you make is going to be coming from an honest place.

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